06 Jul VP Jon Cartu Announces – In NJ, 89K students can’t get online at home. Here’s how…
As New Jersey readies for a new school year heavy on remote instruction, advocates and educators are working to bridge a digital divide that threatens to leave students without access behind.
Despite progress during the coronavirus lockdown, about 89,000 students across the state were still home without learning devices or internet access in June, New Jersey officials said. Around the state, school leaders say they are taking steps to get students online this fall, with some promising to use funding from the federal coronavirus stimulus on new technology.
Some districts say they will have a device for every student in every grade by the time classes resume.
“COVID relief money was a God-send,” said Eileen Shafer, Paterson’s superintendent. “We were able to buy enough Chromebooks for every student from pre-K to 12. That really was a saving grace in all this.”
Critics say commitment by individual districts doesn’t go far enough and that the state should have a concrete plan to ensure every student is equipped and online by the time school is back in session in September.
‘Have to have 100%’
In April, the Department of Education surveyed districts about technology needs and found almost 111,000 students could not access the internet at home. Essex and Mercer had the largest numbers of students without access — 17,900 and 13,100, respectively.
By late April, after a flurry of laptop-buying and other efforts, the state total had dropped to 98,424 students.
Yet by early June, progress had stalled. About 89,000 students statewide — or over 6% of students — still didn’t have technology to allow remote learning, Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet said at a Senate hearing. Repollet left this month to take the president’s job at Kean University.
Department officials have not provided updated information since then. Asked last week for an estimate of children who remain without access, Repollet said the state was still gathering information from districts.
“Things have changed, and districts have bought technology to ensure they can provide remote learning,” Repollet said.
State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, a Newark Democrat and chair of the Senate’s education committee, has said the number of students without digital learning capability was “completely unacceptable.”
“The fact that we’re not all angry and livid about this is extraordinary,” she said. “We talk about equity, and then we do things that are not equitable.”
In an interview last week, Ruiz said providing technology was an immediate priority that was pushed aside by the focus on reopening schools.
“You’re talking about the entire state and its opening effort, which is important for our economy to get back and people to get back to work, for some sense of the new normal to take place,” Ruiz said. “How do you do that when you literally stepped over thousands of students and families because you haven’t addressed their immediate need?”
Many local districts were waiting for funding from the federal CARES Act to buy technology, with checks expected to begin arriving this week, Repollet said. About $310 million is headed to New Jersey to aid education needs and of that 90% must go directly to districts, department spokesman Michael Yaple said in an email.
The state will use part of the remaining 10% on grants for schools to invest in computer devices and internet connectivity, Yaple said.
Repollet said he expected 90% of districts to provide learning devices for each student by September. Ruiz said New Jersey must do more.
“If we need to figure out a legislative way, an executive power way, some way to sanction districts who are not following this, then we need to go above and beyond,” she said. “We have to have 100% up and running for September.”
In guidance released last week, it became clear that some districts will rely on remote learning in combination with in-person teaching when school buildings reopen. The guidance points district leaders to funding sources and says “to the extent possible” districts should provide each student with their own device.
In Mount Laurel, the district is working to assess the needs of its students and their families. Officials have launched a district reopening committee and are forming school pandemic response teams.
“We are developing our plan with the engagement of all our major stakeholders. Given the options available to us, our plan will most likely include a hybrid model of both in school instruction and at home virtual learning for all students, with special exceptions for special populations,” Superintendent George Rafferty said.
“We are a one-to-one laptop district and all students will use them at home for virtual learning.”
The district also worked at the start of the outbreak to ensure students had technology to continue learning from home
“We had approximately 15 percent of our kindergarteners who didn’t have technology available at home and we provided them with devices,” Rafferty said. “As far as connectivity, we are at 100 percent since we deployed hotspot devices.”
Gov. Phil Murphy acknowledged the state’s digital divide, saying access to learning devices was one of the “huge holes and gaps in our state, and we are committed to filling those.”
Class by cellphone
Some districts say they have decided to use CARES funding so every child will be equipped with a computer in the fall. School officials say it’s crucial since they may have to continue remote learning, at least part-time, due to the continuing coronavirus threat.
“We’ve learned how important the Internet is. It’s no longer a luxury. It’s essential. So we’re looking to provide these services to all families,” said Northern Burlington County Superintendent James Sarruda, who said his district was able to bridge the digital divide during the outbreak by providing hot spots and devices.
New Jersey Students who were online had advantages over their peers, superintendents have said. Paper packets were used to review instruction, while students online could watch teachers’ lessons and learn new material.
In Dover, the district of 3,400 students was able to distribute 100 computers when the shutdown occurred. Many students ended up watching teachers’ lessons and responding on family cellphones – a situation that was not ideal, said Superintendent James McLaughlin.